Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A Womb and a Soul: An Open Letter to Benedict XVI

**Warning: Shit's about to get real. If you are easily offended, don't read on.

It must be nice to retire because you are tired. It must be nice for the exhaustion of your body to count for something.

I am 32 years old, mostly healthy. I was Catholic for the first 30 years of my life. I have two children, conceived under the auspices of Natural Family Planning. My husband and I do not have plans for a third.

I had extreme postpartum depression after my first baby. I rode it out, for 12 long months, and then slowly came back to life. Six months later we decided it was time for the second baby, and I became pregnant almost instantly (thanks, NFP!) with my beautiful daughter.  I thought the PPD might have just been a symptom of my son’s difficult birth – he was born two months early, and his first six months or so were very hard on me in every way: mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally. I had high hopes; I thought a second baby – a full-term baby – might head off the postpartum depression a second time around.

It turns out it didn’t.

While my symptoms were not quite as severe after my daughter was born, it turns out that something inside of me is a genetic bomb designed to go off three days after childbirth, and to pour out its fury for months afterwards. I stay in a dark, sludgy haze for the first year of my baby’s life – to this day, I have very limited memories of the first year of both of my children’s lives. That's two years out the past five, basically lost. Mothering infants for me is a matter of teeth-and-bone survival. It’s ugly. It isn’t graceful. It is not a Pampers commercial. It’s a prison camp that smells like baby powder.

And at about twelve months, the bell jar lifts. The sunlight comes back in; I can hear the birds singing again, and I begin the long, painful, years-long process of finding myself again. While losing 60+ pounds of baby weight, working, and raising young children. Twice.

Once, on a Catholic NFP forum, I posed my question -- can I delay conception of another baby indefinitely, because of my difficulties with postpartum depression? The answer: "You need to get on antidepressants immediately, so that you can be open to God's call to parenthood when it comes."

So... God made me one way, and I need to take a pill to change that nature, in order to... please God?

Sounds legit.

I left the Church two years ago, for many reasons. What made it easier to stay away is that other Christian faiths do not condemn me for saying that I am done – that I do not desire to go back into that dark, tar-sticky wormhole of postpartum depression. That I am okay with having two children – that I am even happy to have “only” two children. That my beautiful son and daughter are enough for me and my husband. Other denominations allow the fact that I might be more than just a womb and a soul.

It must be nice to be allowed to retire when your body and mind give out.

How much nicer it would be if your Church would extend such a pontifical privilege to the women it claims to cherish.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

These Forty Days

My hopes for this Lent are kind of modest, and I think it's better that way. First, I want to stop using profanity. I am doing fairly well with this, although I have slipped a few times. It seems like the better I regulate my stress level, the better I can stick to this one. It's just an aggressive and caustic way to talk, and I think I will be better for avoiding it whenever possible. I don't aim for 100% eradication of all cursing, but maybe a good, solid 85% to 90% reduction. We will see how this one goes.

My second hope is kind of ironic, considering that I am writing it here, but I am working on reducing my world a little bit. I am removing myself from social media to a great extent, although not completely. I have deleted my Tumblr and Twitter accounts, and scaled my Facebook friends list way down. This is as a result of several difficult things that have happened lately, and I feel like the more private I am, the better. I do like keeping up with my friends, but I think I have to do it in a much smaller kind of way.

My third hope is very closely tied to the second, and it has to do with really getting comfortable with my reality. Part of my personality is that I spend a lot of time "in my head" -- ideas are incredibly real and important to me. Alternately, sometimes the tangible stuff of my life seems very dull or difficult, and it is always a temptation to escape into thought and to strive to built thought-castles like stories or books (or blog posts) instead of just sitting with reality. For me, social media makes this kind of escape easier, which is why I am cutting it back. It also has to do with letting go of silly ambitions that belong to someone younger. I am a wife and mother and teacher. I am not a writer (at least not in any kind of real sense) or thinker or influential person of any kind, and the less I try to be those things, the more peace I think I will ultimately feel. I guess another way of putting it is that I want to let my ambition go. Ambition is something like desire, in that it can lead you to achieve and strive more, but conversely it always leads to sadness and disappointment. The less ambition there is, the less twisting, turning, churning adolescent pain. I stopped being an adolescent at least ten years ago, if not more. I should really leave it in my past. This translates into something like talking less, and listening more. Communicating in ways other than with words. Doing my work faithfully and daydreaming less. Something like more dishes and laundry, fewer story plots scrawled in my notebook. One day I want to wake up contented with the fact that I live an obscure life, and always will.

So far I am doing all right with these goals. Today was a big day because I got rid of Tumblr and Twitter, both. It actually hurt, a little, but I think in the end it will be good. My goal is to make it through an entire Monday (tomorrow, and the hardest day of the week) with no profanity. Can I do it? :)
Update: No, I can't do it. Too many stressful events, and the profanity just tumbles out. Might try again tomorrow.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Outside the Box

I have been trying to get my head around a really strange thing that happened to me last week – an unsolicited letter out of nowhere, full of criticism, judgment, specific instructions for my immediate redemption, and threats of what would happen if I did not comply.

I thought about it, I got mad, I got sad (before this incident, the letter-writer and I had shared a certain amount of friendly close-ness that I liked), I got livid, I got vengeful, I got sad again; I got tired.
And then this morning the pieces snapped together like a toddler’s jigsaw puzzle.

I got an email from my sister about an annoying habit that people have of asking her when she will have children. It’s such a personal question, and it’s asked in such a prying, nosey way. In a way, it is similar to the letter I received – criticism, judgment, instructions, and threats.

So why does this happen? I see it suddenly like a sign in the sky: society hates an un-filed lady.

It is not a coincidence that Romney talked about “binders full of women” months ago. In many ways women are seen this way in general – as sheets of paper to be hole-punched and collated into smooth-covered vinyl binders, to be perused at leisure, or put on a shelf.

In this time and space, it seems like we have a few different file folders for women to fit into. Single girl, married woman, married woman with children, older married woman; nice grey-haired elderly lady. Unless you are rich and eccentric or famous, or all three of these, you are expected to hop fairly neatly and with perfect satisfaction from one folder to the next, in the appropriate timeframe and in the correct order. If you have the gall to get out of the file box and look around the room for a minute, to feel cramped or bored in your folder, or to linger too long in a space you enjoy, the secretary comes for you with her questions, and inevitably, with her criticism, judgment, instructions, and threats.

I am out of my file folder because I am a happy married woman with children and a good life – and yet I am not done striving yet. I still have some inconvenient artistic ambition swirling around in there, and someday I want to see Europe, and I want to walk down a street where I can’t even read the alphabet in which the signs are written. At 31, I am neither young nor old, yet I am seen as both a child and a parent. I don’t know the answers, and sometimes I don’t even know the questions. I have all the things I am supposed to want, and I still want other things besides, and I am okay with that. I am more than okay. I like it. I like being excited about life and its possibilities. I like wondering what I will do and what I will see in the next ten years. But this unfinished, raw-edge quality that my yearning gives me upsets the secretary as well, just as a healthy lady of 30 with no children causes consternation and constant comment.

The secretary sees a problem – a woman out of her binder – and she seeks to file me away. You have a problem, she tells me, and I have the solution. Get closer so I can three-hole-punch you.

A woman outside of the file-box is automatically a rebel, even if she would be rebelling against herself by jumping into it. Just by existing in an unexpected way – unexpected by whom, you might say, because at least in the case of my sister and me, our husbands love us, want us as we are, not crammed in folders – she threatens order, raises impertinent questions, and confounds the filing system.

A few weeks ago, I pulled all of the paper out of my filing cabinet at home and sorted it, getting rid of the old, obsolete documents, relabeling a few folders to fit our current filing needs, and after putting the useful things back again and watching two straight episodes of Sherlock went outside in a fit of drama and burned the useless old documents in the fire pit in our backyard. I must have looked like a bona fide lunatic, dancing around the backyard in my jeans and sweatjacket, ducking out of the way of the eye-stinging smoke as it drifted toward me again and again, white ash in my hair and on my clothes.

It was surprisingly hard to keep the old, worn out paper burning. I lit match after match, fanned the flames, and in the end fell to twisting the documents into little paper logs and stacking them in a pyramid shape all around the flames in the center. Whatever it took, though, the effort was worth it. I got to see the old obligations, bills, receipts of the past five years light, crackle, burn, and float up to the sky like so much smoke.